I’m sure that Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa thought he was being clever yesterday when he blamed the Dutch East India company’s Jan van Riebeeck “directly” for the hanging of Umkhonto weSizwe operative Solomon Mahlangu 40 years ago, after he was found guilty of murdering two civilians.
He said, according to News24: “April 6th marks a double tragedy in the sense that it marks the arrival on our shores of that convicted criminal Jan Van Riebeeck. His landing had a devastating effect that led directly to Solomon Mahlangu being hanged.”
The temptation for the minister to draw parallels between two events that famously took place on 6 April must have been too strong to resist.
The first, of course, was when Van Riebeeck arrived on that fateful day in 1652 on the shores of what would later become Cape Town. The second was Mahlangu’s execution, a mere 327 years later.
In order to accept Mthethwa’s logic, however, you would have to abandon a fair amount of common sense, possibly by smacking your own head into a wall 327 times.
You’d have to accept the idea that history moves in a predictable, even fatalistic way, and that South Africa could never have made any better historical decisions along the way, even though it surely could have. A change in fortune could have seen the United Party defeating the National Party in 1948, and then the years of apartheid that led to Mahlangu’s execution could have been avoided.
Sure, there would have been many other historical problems, and the struggle for true black emancipation would have had to continue, but it would have been different. No one can say exactly how, but it would have been.
To accept Mthethwa’s proposition, you’d also have to believe that bad things can somehow be prevented if something different happened in the past (lots of movies about time travel would teach our minister, perhaps, how messy things can quickly become when you start getting into time machines to undo past events).
No doubt it is true that if Van Riebeeck had never arrived, Mahlangu would never have been hanged. But that’s probably because Mahlangu would never have been born in the first place. And neither would you or I.
Everything would have been different. We don’t know how, exactly, but it would have been.
Van Riebeeck’s arrival, along with that of hundreds of thousands of Europeans in his wake, set the tone for the future unfolding of events in southern Africa, and no one can honestly say for sure what this place would be like today if it had never happened. We may all have clever ideas about it, informed by our own bias, but it will essentially always be mere speculation, and utterly unprovable.
All that we do know, and all that we have, is the facts about what did happen, and an awareness of our current state because of it. We also have a choice about what kind of future we choose.
Those who like to push the argument that South Africa would be better today if no Europeans had come here are often the so-called nativists who believe white South Africans should be dispossessed today in a multitude of ways, as if this will leave society at large better off.
Then, of course, you get the well-trod position of particularly the white right wing, but not them in isolation, that if settlers had never come here, South Africa would today resemble most of the other underdeveloped, civil war-racked states of Africa, and that the white people actually made things better in the bigger picture, not worse. They tend to gloss over, or not acknowledge at all, the discrimination and pain that was meted out to millions of indigenous African people over hundreds of years.
Either way, no one can change history or wish it away. It is, as the saying goes, what it is.
It’s good to look back on history to try to work out which actions were good and constructive, and which not. Air-crash investigators try to figure out what went wrong so that they can prevent similar crashes in the future, and the steady improvement in air-safety standards over the years is testament to how effective this approach is.
And unlike the old saying that claims we never do so, humans have indeed been learning from history. Progress has undeniably been happening over the centuries and we are all far better off today, in several ways, than we were 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago.
When you start to say things like Van Riebeeck’s arrival directly caused Mahlangu’s killing centuries later, it’s the kind of thing that may sound good in an election year but is actually foolish. If you’re going to start parsing historical events into discrete units of blame, where do you start to draw the line? And where do you finish drawing that line?
Why not go even further back in time? Why not blame Alexander the Great’s invasion of Persia for Solomon Mahlangu’s hanging? Because every historian knows that Alexander’s hasty creation of an empire set up many of the conditions for the rise of modern Western civilisation. That in turn much later allowed Van Riebeeck’s Dutch East India company to begin to navigate the globe in search of profit.
Why stop there? Why not blame the fall of the ancient Sumerian civilisation for Solomon Mahlangu’s hanging?
For that matter, why not go all the way back into archaeological history to that most defining period of all for our species, about 4 million years ago? Back then, early hominid ancestors left the relative safety of the trees in East Africa and started walking on the ground. Maybe we can blame them directly for the hanging of Solomon Mahlangu.
If you really want to be ultra-revolutionary in your historical blame game, why not poke an accusing finger at the primordial amino acids in the earth’s hot springs for organising into the earliest forms of life? Maybe we should blame protozoan life forms directly for Solomon Mahlangu being hanged.
They probably knew about as much about what was going to happen to Solomon Mahlangu as Van Riebeeck did.
You may as well not stop there, and go all the way back to 13.8 billion years ago, when our universe first burst into existence in the Big Bang.
Damn you, Big Bang, damn you, for directly causing so much historical injustice on planet Earth.
Forgive me my facetiousness with this one, but politicians and their politics can so often be unbearably frustrating.
Horrible things have happened throughout history, and all of those things have deep and superficial historical causes. Terrible things certainly haven’t happened exclusively in South Africa, and they will continue to happen, both here and everywhere else, if only because of the law of entropy itself.
We have a duty to limit or even prevent as many horrible things in future as we possibly can, and to do that we have to learn from the past. But there’s a limit to how much good can come from blaming the past for things that simply cannot be changed today.
I understand that Nathi Mthethwa was merely trying to make the point that the struggle for emancipation for Africans began the moment an occupying force set foot in these lands, and that Solomon Mahlangu was part of that long tradition. And I understand Mthethwa was merely engaging in political rhetoric.
But what he and his party owe us a lot more of in this election year is what exactly he and his cohorts are planning to do to make the next 367 years in this country better than the 367 that preceded it.
The past 25 years, which they have been directly responsible for have left a lot to be desired. Those years were probably not what Solomon Mahlangu had in mind when he said in his final words that his blood should nourish the tree that would bear the fruits of freedom.